Friend or Foe: Silicon Valley in the Age of Trump

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Friend or Foe: Silicon Valley in the Age of Trump

When President Trump’s immigration ban resulted in nationwide protests, the media was quick to champion the progressive virtues of one group in particular: Silicon Valley. But this narrative of America’s tech industry as agent of resistance, much like the stock price of the Theranos corporation, is a self-serving lie that falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. But Silicon Valley isn’t a totally lost cause either, and it’s too wealthy and influential to ignore.

The mainstream media isn’t entirely wrong. The tech industry was one of the loudest voices opposing President Trump’s executive orders in January. The CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Google, Uber and many other corporations condemned Trump’s Muslim ban and pledged millions of dollars to assist immigrants affected by it. When 2,000 Alphabet employees staged a walkout, they were joined by Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin and CEO Sundar Pichai, who gave impassioned speeches in support of immigration. Facing pressure from customers and a boycott, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned from the president’s advisory council.

So far, so good. But immigration is one area where the tech industry’s aim—uninterrupted profit forever—is put at risk by the Republican president’s agenda. Silicon Valley is heavily reliant on the unrestricted global flow of human capital (or “talent,” in corporate-speak). Profit and progressivism may temporarily overlap, but what happens when the agendas of the valley and the White House align?

Political donations provide a clue: an increasing amount of money from the tech industry is finding its way into Republican coffers. Corporate PACs tied to Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Amazon gave more to Republican candidates in 2016 than they did to Democrats, and while the overall majority of private and corporate donations coming out of Silicon Valley still go to Democratic candidates, this shift in spending signals that politics is part of the tech business. On many issues central to Silicon Valley, such as taxation, privacy, labor rights and intellectual property, a Republican president is as useful as a Democrat, or even more so.

Then there are the tech leaders working for Trump. Peter Thiel, Silicon Valley’s most prominent Trump supporter, has suffered little for his loyalty. Thiel serves as an advisor to Trump and remains on Facebook’s board of directors. Even as Mark Zuckerberg has spoken out against Trump’s immigration ban he has publicly defended Thiel and dismissed calls to remove him. Elon Musk, whose work on electric cars and solar power has made him a liberal tech darling, is still serving on Trump’s advisory council.

This much is clear: the powerful, super-wealthy men who run Silicon Valley are not really opposed to President Trump. They give money to Republicans because they have a vested interest in working with whoever sits in the White House, as long as that person remains committed to the unassailable, bipartisan law of American politics: supporting American capitalism.

More troubling than the politics of individual CEOs are the actions of Silicon Valley corporations, many of which are actively helping Trump. One of Peter Thiel’s companies, the data-analytics firm Palantir, provides information services to the FBI and NSA, and is helping US immigration authorities build a database and analytic tools to monitor behavior patterns in citizens, profile individuals, track their movements, map their relationships, and predict behavior. You don’t need to be into Illuminati-style conspiracies to fear “the most powerful machine for spying ever devised,” which, of course, has CIA funding. This isn’t just a potential Muslim registry, this is a human registry.

The major social networks played their part in Trump’s rise, wittingly or not. Facebook and Twitter, pretending they are not colossal media entities but rather “neutral” platforms, helped feed large amounts of misinformation into the news cycle and served as the Trump campaign’s most powerful advertising platforms. The technology works, folks, it works all too well. There is a disconnect between the tech industry’s progressive public statements and the means by which its corporations actually generate profit. Turns out there is no such thing as a politically neutral platform.

You can even find Silicon Valley’s presence when you go deeper into the structural conditions underpinning Trump’s rise to power—that is, the steady decay of capitalism and the attendant increase in human immiseration. The tech industry has generated enormous amounts of wealth and concentrated it in a tiny number of hands in a tiny geographic area. The valley’s corporations have also avoided paying their fair share of taxes, to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. Tax avoidance and income inequality are problems across the world. On both fronts, Silicon Valley leads the way.

Silicon Valley’s leaders are not America’s progressive champions, let alone ardent members of the anti-Trump movement. But all good Marxists know that change never really comes from above. Radical resistance in Silicon Valley starts not with the Elon Musks and Travis Kalanicks of Silicon Valley but with their workers. This includes the full-time white collar workers on their fancy campuses and the service workers, unseen and poorly paid, who keep the whole valley operating.

Organizing labor in Silicon Valley is no easy task. The tech industry is as libertarian as it is liberal and traditionally resistant to unions. But this is changing. Organizations like Tech Solidarity are attempting to get tech workers organized, while nonprofits like Silicon Valley Rising and Tech Workers Coalition are doing the same for the valley’s service workers. They are also trying to foster solidarity between service workers and their white collar counterparts at the upper end of the pay scale, a difficult but absolutely essential task. And it might just catch on. Left-wing ideas have never been more popular in Silicon Valley: while the valley’s CEOs strongly favored Hillary Clinton with political donations, their employees donated hard for one Bernard Sanders, America’s favorite socialist.

It is tempting to imagine a future of worker-led tech protests against Trump: social networks going offline, search engines refusing to search, spy software turned against the spymasters, a radical shift to democratized, open source technology—now that would be disruption. All that may be fantasy for now but it’s important not to write off Silicon Valley’s progressive potential. It’s just more important not to buy into the #resistance hype. Big business will always side with big government—unless their workers and customers hold them to account.

Richard Whitten is a left-wing writer and recovering expat. He tweets more than is wise at @RichenWhittard.

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